Sunday, June 28, 2009

Huckleberry Finn, Chapter XXXII

Jim's betrayal and imprisonment ends the raft portion of the story and ushers in the resolution of the tale which many readers over the years have found disappointing. I am not one of them. Noted in our consideration along the way have been echos and touches Twain drew from Cervantes and Shakespeare, two writers who did not shy from using coincidence when the mood hit. Twain is in good company, and those who yearn for a more "realistic" ending do so, I submit, for being beguiled by Twain's groundbreaking natural and realistic presentation of life.

This new way of presenting the world in fiction, honest and colloquial, though kicking open the door for 20th century American fiction, was always in service to a higher aim: a corrosive satire on American hypocrisy, and the forces that formed it. Not only did Twain want his novel widely read, which argued very much in favor of a happy ending, the return to the conventions of 'young adult' fiction allowed him far more possibilities for a genuinely subversive text than a realistic telling of what awaited captured runaway slaves in rural Louisiana ca. 1835.

The Phelps place is a small cotton plantation; a big log house with three slave cabins close by. On approaching, Huck hears a spinning wheel above the buzzing of insects and feels what we might call an existential dread: I knowed for certain I wished I was dead -- for that IS the lonesomest sound in the whole world. Modern readers will just have to take his word for it.

Half way to the house, Huck riles the farm's dogs who hold him at bay until a slave woman, and her three children, comes running from the kitchen to call them off. She is followed by the mistress of the house, with her children, smiling broadly and welcoming Huck as if he were expected.

He plays along with her misunderstanding, that he is her nephew Tom. She tells him to call her Aunt Polly, and he does. Did he have breakfast on the boat? Yes, he says. Why was he so late? Boat blew a cylinder-head.

"Good gracious! anybody hurt?"

"No'm. Killed a nigger."

"Well, it's lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt. Two years ago last Christmas your uncle Silas was coming up from Newrleans on the old Lally Rook, and she blowed out a cylinder-head and [....]

The above is an old, old joke--no one was hurt but many were killed--here used to highlight a certain thoughtlessness of the time and Aunt Polly. She does love to talk, and on she goes. Where's his bag? Hid it, says Huck. He makes up another story about how he got to eat so early on the boat. Then she wants to hear all the news from home. Huck, stumped, is about to tell the truth (or at least tell her he is not kin) when Polly sees her husband Silas coming back from the river landing where he had gone to met their guest. Polly tells Huck to hide.

After Polly plays the trick on her husband, Silas wants to know who the boy standing in his kitchen is. Why that's Tom Sawyer! she says.

By jings, I most slumped through the floor! But there warn't no time to swap knives; the old man grabbed me by the hand and shook, and kept on shaking; and all the time how the woman did dance around and laugh and cry; and then how they both did fire off questions about Sid, and Mary, and the rest of the tribe.

But if they was joyful, it warn't nothing to what I was; for it was like being born again, I was so glad to find out who I was.

There is a lot going on in this very simple scene: the recovery of family and sense of identity, the connection of Huck Finn with Tom Sawyer that harkens to the novel's first line. Huck may as well be Tom for all that he can tell the Phelps of their far-off family. Jim is nearby too, and we might see the black woman and children who came running to free Huck from the hounds (symbolic of what Huck has done for Jim) as a deft representation of the promise of wife and children restored to Jim as well.

In one sense Huck and Jim, after their odyssey among riven families, orphans, and castaways, have come home, a place which still presents certain problems, but all of a distinctly domestic nature.

Now I was feeling pretty comfortable all down one side, and pretty uncomfortable all up the other. Being Tom Sawyer was easy and comfortable, and it stayed easy and comfortable till by and by I hear a steamboat coughing along down the river. Then I says to myself, s'pose Tom Sawyer comes down on that boat? And s'pose he steps in here any minute, and sings out my name before I can throw him a wink to keep quiet?

Huck says he'll go fetch his bag, no help needed, thanks. And as the chapter ends sets off to see if Tom has arrived.

**Editor's note: I'll be taking the holiday weekend off and will be back to consider Chapter XXXIII in two weeks. Enjoy the 4th, everybody!**

Last week Chapt. XXXI
Next time Chapts. XXXIII & XXXIV

Divide's Guide to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, edited and revised for publication, is now available in a Kindle edition for $3.95.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Huckleberry Finn, Chapter XXXI

The four drift for days and days. They are now in the deep south, Spanish moss give the riverscape a haunted look. The Duke and King, finally a safe distance from their Wilks family debacle, go back back to their old bag of tricks, lectures on temperance, medicine, or fortune telling. Nothing works. Huck notes the two of them plotting something.

They land two miles below another small town and the King goes off to reconnoiter, telling the Duke and Huck to follow if he does not return by midday. He does not and they find him drunk in town. As the two con men are arguing, Huck races back to the raft ready to finally give them the slip but discovers Jim is gone. Huck runs through the woods yelling Jim's name over and over and, distraught, begins to cry.

Quickly coming to his senses, he sets out and meets a boy who tells him that the person he asks about was picked up as a runaway slave and is now in custody at the Silas Phelps farm two miles downstream. The King had gone to town with the fake runaway slave handbill that quoted the $200 reward and, saying he could not stay around to collect it himself, sold Jim's location for $40.

We have here reached the moral nadir of the book, where the combined actions of human refuse and a hideous social order allows for the legal selling of a companion for the cost of a weekend bender. Huck is finally at an utter loss. Better Jim is a slave at home, he thinks, as long as he'd got to be a slave than among strangers. The game is up. He resolves to write Tom Sawyer asking him to alert Miss Watson as to Jim's whereabouts.

Huck's thinking immediately goes along moral lines, and he reviews the punishment, social and divine, that awaits wicked, nigger-loving abolitionist thieves like him.

[...] here was the plain hand of Providence slapping me in the face and letting me know my wickedness was being watched all the time from up there in heaven, whilst I was stealing a poor old woman's nigger that hadn't ever done me no harm, and now was showing me there's One that's always on the lookout, and ain't a-going to allow no such miserable doings to go only just so fur and no further, I most dropped in my tracks I was so scared. Well, I tried the best I could to kinder soften it up somehow for myself by saying I was brung up wicked, and so I warn't so much to blame; but something inside of me kept saying, "There was the Sunday-school, you could a gone to it; and if you'd a done it they'd a learnt you there that people that acts as I'd been acting about that nigger goes to everlasting fire."

It made me shiver. And I about made up my mind to pray, and see if I couldn't try to quit being the kind of a boy I was and be better. So I kneeled down. But the words wouldn't come. Why wouldn't they? It warn't no use to try and hide it from Him. Nor from me, neither. I knowed very well why they wouldn't come. It was because my heart warn't right; it was because I warn't square; it was because I was playing double.

Huck writes a terse note to Miss Watson directly, telling where to find Jim, and feels momentarily absolved. But then, in one of the most beautiful paragraphs in this beautiful book, he recalls life on the Mississippi with Jim.

[...] and I see Jim before me all the time: in the day and in the night-time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a-floating along, talking and singing and laughing. But somehow I couldn't seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind. I'd see him standing my watch on top of his'n, 'stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was when I come back out of the fog[....]

Then, in the novel's most celebrated passage, Huck chooses eternal damnation over giving up Jim, "All right, then, I'll go to hell", and tears up the note.

Note the quotation marks. This is the only part in the story where Huck speaks to himself aloud, where the voice separates itself from both the expression of his active interior monologue--what he recalls thinking--and the flow of his outward narration--what he says happened. It flags that point where Huck judges his action the most clearly, and acts the most decisively. After dark he takes the raft down river a couple miles to be closer to where Jim is being held.

Next morning he sets out and finds the Phelps place, only reconnoitering to go back later from the direction of town. He then heads into Pikeville where he finds the Duke putting up a poster for another Royal Nonesuch. He makes up a story about helping a farmer overnight, says now he can't find the raft or his slave Jim, his only possession in the world. The Duke admits that the King sold Jim--and drank up most of the money--and says he doesn't know where the raft is, that the two tried finding it to sleep on the night before (note the alcoholic audacity of this) and that it was gone.

The Duke tells Huck that Jim is being held by a farmer 40 miles inland (a mile for every dollar of Jim's betrayal), three days travel by foot, and bids him to start walking. Huck sets out in that direction until he's sure the Duke isn't watching him, then doubles back to the Phelps place.

Last week Chapts XXIX & XXX
Next week Chapt XXXII

Divide's Guide to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, edited and revised for publication, is now available in a Kindle edition for $3.95.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Huckleberry Finn, Chapters XXIX & XXX

The public dispute between the true Wilks brothers and their impostors, before a crowd of interested citizens, takes up most of chapter XXIX. The many involved repair to a common room at the hotel, where the local authorities ask the King to put up the money until its ownership can be determined. The King replies that it has been stolen by the slaves he just sold away.

A man named Hines claims to have seen the King upriver the morning the three were supposed to have arrived from Cincinnati and identifies Huck. Huck is then called on to offer his own testimony of their supposed life in England and, as shown earlier, fails miserably. An analysis of handwriting, comparing letters sent to the late brother, goes in favor of the new arrivals. Then the true Wilks brother asks the King to describe the tattoo on the late man's chest. A small arrow, says the King. The initials P B W, says the other. The men who prepared the body cannot verify either, so the kangaroo court adjourns to the cemetery to dig up the corpse. The subject of lynching is enthusiastically raised.

Hines has a firm grip on Huck during the procession to the grave. A storm is brewing too. make it more scary the sky was darking up, and the lightning beginning to wink and flitter, and the wind to shiver amongst the leaves. This was the most awful trouble and most dangersome I ever was in [....]

The drama is now reflected in the sky as the grave is unearthed.

...they sailed into digging anyway by the flicker of the lightning, and sent a man to the nearest house, a half a mile off, to borrow [a lantern].

So they dug and dug like everything; and it got awful dark, and the rain started, and the wind swished and swushed along, and the lightning come brisker and brisker, and the thunder boomed; but them people never took no notice of it, they was so full of this business; and one minute you could see everything and every face in that big crowd, and the shovelfuls of dirt sailing up out of the grave, and the next second the dark wiped it all out, and you couldn't see nothing at all.

At last they got out the coffin and begun to unscrew the lid, and then such another crowding and shouldering and shoving as there was, to scrouge in and get a sight, you never see; and in the dark, that way, it was awful. Hines he hurt my wrist dreadful pulling and tugging so, and I reckon he clean forgot I was in the world, he was so excited and panting.

All of a sudden the lightning let go a perfect sluice of white glare, and somebody sings out:

"By the living jingo, here's the bag of gold on his breast!"

The crowd surges forward and in the excitement Hines lets go of Huck, who takes to his heels and does not stop until he reaches the river (seeing in his passage through the village the signal light he asked Mary Jane to put in her window.) He finds a canoe (hard to believe, I know) and darts to the raft in the storm, where an overjoyed Jim, seen in a flash of lightning still dressed as a blue-faced Lear (!), nearly scares him to death.

They shove off and Huck thinks they've made a clean getaway. But the King and Duke, now stripped of all their comic trappings (indeed making a storm-wracked appearance of almost supernatural malevolence), are in a skiff hot on their tail.

Once on the raft the King throttles the boy demanding the reason why he left them with the mob. (Their own getaway was effected like Huck's when their guards were distracted by the discovery of the money.) He soon has to deal with the Duke who tells him to lay off the kid, who only did what either of them would do, and demands he admit hiding the money himself to cheat the Duke out of his share. They fight. The older man loses and is made to falsely admit to the plan to avoid being strangled. The section ends with the two drunks, having made up, sleeping--in a very ambiguous image--in each others arms, as Huck tells Jim what happened.

Aside from the terrific, again nearly cinematic, description of the crowd and the storm, of special note in this section is how the two con men have been transformed from the comic scalawags of first meeting to the active agents of hell seen in the storm (a transformation which calls to mind Robert Mitchum's very similar role 70 years later in another river story, The Night of the Hunter.) They are revealed in a literal flash of illumination as truly evil; an astonishingly modern effect. I also propose that above all it is the taint of slavery--of selling the Wilks' human property--that, in Twain's design, has done the most to turn the rogues into monsters.

Last week Chapts. XXVII & XXVIII
Next week Chapter XXXI

Divide's Guide to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, edited and revised for publication, is now available in a Kindle edition for $3.95.

Friday, June 12, 2009


Wow, lookit me. The title says it all, folks, 500 posts having led up to this one, and though I've been mainly occupied considering Twain's great work here lately, I've felt remiss not contributing mine own jot of noise to the never ending story of late.

If I have a failure as a polemicist (and here I submit that polemicists don't have failures, only varying senses of style) is that I tend to draw absolutes from valid conditions. More to the point, I underestimate people's needful capacity to be lied to (call it the embroidered world-tale, the national myth, the sturdy self-image), and the capacity for institutions to exist long after their reasons and supports for existing have evaporated. Nowhere is this more evident than in that nexus of lies/money/and radiant self-regard that is the rightist and mainstream media.

Do I group FUX news and the New York Times in the same set here? Damn right I do. Both are deeply invested in the status quo, both will lie and obscure as need be to further their policy ends, both are deeply committed to the articulation of trivia, both cultivate their brands, both are dying.

This is not to say I am blind to their differences, or that I do not prefer to spend time with one over the other. (That I'd rather talk about the work of Cy Twombly with your typical Yale Art grad, than the films of Chuck Norris with a Pepperdine alum says more about me than them.) And while the woes of paper have been parsed in detail (sometimes here) it is hard finding anyone saying the same about broadcast teevee long term.

The reasons for this are several, chief one being that broadcast TV is a far younger medium that the newspaper, and is certainly healthier from a pure numbers standpoint. One might also propose that the truly, deeply, quietly conservative money has stepped from the sinking print boat to its last logical craft and is hoping to hunker down there safe and warm. (One may say the same for all those aging eyeballs.) I choose to bring up the death of TV, and therefore FUX news, now because today is a big day in history, one which Dr. McLuhan, he of sainted, scattered memory, would have been keen to witness.

I am speaking specifically to the end of true broadcast television--signals sent for free out into the air for anyone with a coat-hanger antenna to collect--today. Yep, the system which once kept America secure with entertainment and Madison Ave. drunks in their spacious homes, as of 6.12.09, has been switched off for good.

The practical outcome of this very dramatic symbolic shift is to drop about 3% of homes from the TV cloud, none of them, of course, cable subscribers. But consider, when was the last time an enormous industry willingly gave up 3% of market? (And their reason being?) We may look back on yesterday as being the last day of peak TV.

Let me offer another, albeit anecdotal, data point. Revisiting the old kollege a couple weeks ago, I was lucky enough to spend time with current members of my old social org (males and females) at a honking large party on Saturday night. It was dark, and loud, and I had a few drinks, but I swear I overheard someone a lot younger than I say that none of the current members watch television.

Now granted, the kids would likely strike many as elitist pups. They probably spend way too much time playing video games, and I know for certs they are addicted to everything their cell phones and laptops can do for them. I bet most of them have Netflicks accounts, too. But. . . no TV?? This is a development that bears watching, though you will not be able to see it mentioned on television.

It is old people in their home recliners and hospital beds, those boomers going belly up, who will stick with the boob tube, which I believe explains FUX's late ratings success among the easily-enraged. If young people are truly out of the habit then the collapse of network television, whose health is constantly and closely charted, is coming a lot sooner than many would think.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Huckleberry Finn, Chapters XXVII & XXVIII

With everyone asleep, Huck sneaks downstairs intending to hide the money bag outside. The front door is locked, however, with no key in sight. Hearing someone on the stairs, he slips past the sleeping guards in the dining room (presumably there in case the dead man revived, which was not unheard of in those medically inexact times), and quickly stows the money in the partially open coffin before slipping behind a door.

The intruder is Mary Jane, the oldest of the Wilks girls, come to pray at the coffin. Huck slips back upstairs, worried that the money will be found when the coffin is sealed.

Next morning is the funeral, and a great set piece, lovingly described, of the service interrupted by the yapping of a dog in the basement, and the smooth way it was handled by the undertaker. Note the theatrical, indeed nearly cinematic way the scene unfolds:

Then he stooped down and begun to glide along the wall, just his shoulders showing over the people's heads. So he glided along, and the powwow and racket getting more and more outrageous all the time; and at last, when he had gone around two sides of the room, he disappears down cellar. Then in about two seconds we heard a whack, and the dog he finished up with a most amazing howl or two, and then everything was dead still, and the parson begun his solemn talk where he left off. In a minute or two here comes this undertaker's back and shoulders gliding along the wall again; and so he glided and glided around three sides of the room, and then rose up, and shaded his mouth with his hands, and stretched his neck out towards the preacher, over the people's heads, and says, in a kind of a coarse whisper, "He had a rat!" Then he drooped down and glided along the wall again to his place. You could see it was a great satisfaction to the people, because naturally they wanted to know.

Born sixty years later, Twain would have done very well in Hollywood.

The coffin is shut and screwed tight without any clue if the money is still inside. Huck fears it is not. After the burial, the King announces that he must quickly return to his congregation in England, that he will take his nieces with him, and that the estate is up for auction in two days, that is whatever is not sold privately before then. The next day slave traders buy the Wilks' human property, a woman and her two sons, and Twain reveals the heavy emotional toll slavery took on those, black and white, most intimately connected with it:

. . . and away they went, the two sons up the river to Memphis, and their mother down the river to Orleans. I thought them poor girls and them niggers would break their hearts for grief; they cried around each other, and took on so it most made me down sick to see it. The girls said they hadn't ever dreamed of seeing the family separated or sold away from the town. I can't ever get it out of my memory, the sight of them poor miserable girls and niggers hanging around each other's necks and crying; and I reckon I couldn't a stood it all, but would a had to bust out and tell on our gang if I hadn't knowed the sale warn't no account and the niggers would be back home in a week or two.

The thing made a big stir in the town, too, and a good many come out flatfooted and said it was scandalous to separate the mother and the children that way.

The last detail is the most interesting for it shows an easily-flouted community morality that nevertheless attempts to justify an inhuman social condition. Nothing the matter with slavery, but separating a family like that? Why, there ought to be a law. . .

Soon after the King and Duke discover the money is gone and grill Huck, without saying why, regarding who he saw in the King's room. Huck says no one but the recently sold slaves.

Early the next morning, Huck finds Mary Jane in her room weeping over the sale of the black family and is moved to tell her the truth. In doing so he formulates a plan which involves Mary Jane leaving the home before breakfast, so as not to give away what she knows, and spending the day with friends in the country. He has a plan to save himself and Jim.

"[. . .] if you was to blow on them this town would get me out of their claws, and I'd be all right; but there'd be another person that you don't know about who'd be in big trouble. Well, we got to save him hain't we? Of course. Well, then, we won't blow on them." The girl agrees to abide by Huck's plan. He gives her two notes, explaining where he hid the money (after saying he didn't think it was there anymore) and how to find witnesses from upriver against the two frauds. She leaves (Huck remarks he never saw her again.) He then concocts an elaborate cover story about her visiting a sick friend for her sisters.

Before he can put his plan in action however, a riverboat arrives with two men, the real Wilk's brothers, and the chapter ends.

While there is much plot and melodrama in this section, one should be aware that it mainly deals with the explosive power that truth has in a hypocritical society. [...] here's a case where I'm blest if it don't look to me like the truth is better and actuly safer than a lie. I must lay it by in my mind, and think it over some time or other, it's so kind of strange and unregular. I never see nothing like it. Well, I says to myself at last, I'm a-going to chance it; I'll up and tell the truth this time, though it does seem most like setting down on a kag of powder and touching it off just to see where you'll go to.

I do believe this is the only time in the book when Huck volunteers the truth, and he does so only after feeling a profound shame. He witnesses first hand the wreckage caused by slavery, and acts in a way so as to restore two fractured families, one black the other white--both missing fathers, while trying to protect a man who is himself a fugitive father, presumably with the hope of eventually restoring him to his own wife and children.

Let me propose that it is exactly this fundamental longing to make right what is profoundly dislocated and wrong in the world which has given the novel its enduring power over the imaginations of readers in dozens of languages for 125 years.

Last week Chapt. XXVI
Next week Chapts. XXIX & XXX

Divide's Guide to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, edited and revised for publication, is now available in a Kindle edition for $3.95.